Maggidah is a Canadian First

Guest writer

Shoshana Litman

Storytelling has always been a part of Shoshana Litman's life.

There aren’t many jobs in today’s world where storytelling is considered an asset for a hire-on-the-spot interview but, for Shoshana (Kort) Litman, the ability to weave stories that can transport another’s spirit is a gift, not simply a skill. Even when a job has a perfunctory role like talking to children about health and traffic safety, the art of the storyteller can be an unexpected tool of the trade.

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“I was hired to that job … because the woman who hired me knew I was a storyteller,” Litman told the Independent, admitting that her role as a regional coordinator for the province’s Way to Go! program in the Victoria area during the 1990s was an early, if not unusual, indicator of where her talents would eventually take her.

Since that time, Litman’s life has taken many paths – mother, poet, author, field biologist, musician and storyteller, but storytelling has always played a role in her success. So has her interest in aggadah and Jewish lore – the cornerstones to one’s role as a maggid, Jewish storyteller.

In 2008, Litman received her ordination (semichah) as Canada’s first maggidah, female Jewish storyteller. The culmination of that accomplishment included years of study under an Orthodox tutor and through the Mussar Institute, where she would eventually be introduced to the world of the maggid. But even before that initial introduction, Litman said, she already had an inkling that her ultimate career would be on stage.

“I was writing poetry and performing … in Olympia, where I had been a student. And then I heard a poet named David Whyte from Whidbey Island and saw that he didn’t read his poetry, he recited it. I saw how much more powerful that was, how much stronger [his] connection was [with] his audience. And I thought, oh, I really want to do that!”

About that same time, Litman said, she moved to Victoria, where she became involved in the Storytellers Guild. The connection provided a venue in which to learn as well as to perform her stories. But throughout that time, Litman was still searching.

“I was trying to figure out – I had taken time to raise kids and I had done many, many things in my life and I was trying to figure out, well, what is my work in the world?” said Litman. She enrolled in a Vancouver conference called Mussar at Work in the hope of discovering her true direction.

“I told a story at that conference and someone said to me, ‘Oh, are you a maggid?’ Then, of course, I had to find out, what’s a maggid?”

The discovery led Litman to Brooklyn, N.Y., and the tutelage of renowned author and maggid Yitzhak Buxbaum. Through the next two years, Litman immersed herself in Jewish storytelling, poring over books that Buxbaum had written, delving into the works of Jewish masters like the Baal Shem Tov, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov and other sages, as well as teachings from the Torah and Talmud. Her completion of the program included performances at four storytelling jamborees, which connected her with storytellers from all over North America.

Asked what her family thought of her decision to become a maggidah, Litman said that “it made a lot of sense” to her two sons, who had grown up enjoying her stories and animated readings ofHarry Potter.

“I think for my husband it took a little more convincing but, in the end, he appreciated it and liked it because it was more outgoing than what I was doing before. The mussar studies were more inner spiritual work and this was clearly something that could be shared. And he really liked that part of it, that it was something I could give to the community.”

She also received support from her mother, Shirley Kort, and her aunt and uncle, Abe and Leyla Sacks, in Vancouver, who were familiar with the concept of a maggid.

“Even my mom said, ‘You know, I think we had an uncle who did something like this.’”

Since her ordination, Litman has performed at a wide variety of venues. In 2012, she was selected as one of three storytellers to take part in that year’s TD Children’s Book Week in Montreal, an opportunity she summed up as “a real honor.” She has also performed in a wide variety of venues around Victoria and the Vancouver mainland, including Congregation Har El in West Vancouver. In May 2013, she toured New Zealand and was hosted at various synagogues and schools around the country. She also maintains a regular schedule of performances at libraries and children’s gatherings, performing for her smallest listeners. And, this year, she donated her skills to the recognition of Congregation Emanu-El’s 150th anniversary in Victoria, by providing tours of the synagogue through the personage of one of its early members.

This last summer, however, marked a milestone for Litman, with her first participation in a storytelling festival. In September, she gave five performances at the Kootenay Storytelling Festival in Nelson.

“It was great, it was a really good introduction to the festival genre. They treated me with a lot of respect and I felt really welcomed and well cared for,” Litman said.

The opportunities to showcase her talents continue to grow, especially during Jewish holidays, when she finds storytelling is particularly in demand.

“The one that people tend to want me to tell stories at, for schools and different things, is Chanukah. But the ones where I get the most spiritual connection is Tu b’Shevat in the wintertime and then Sukkot in the fall,” Litman said, noting that taking time out to observe Shabbat plays a large role in her personal life, as does Rosh Chodesh.

For Litman, the story isn’t the end goal. It’s a vehicle for something greater. “My goal in stories is to encourage people to transform, to change themselves in big or small ways.”

She likens the effect to that of good literature. “When you read a novel, you go into another character; you understand the world from a different perspective. So, listening to the story is very similar, except in some ways it is more immediate because you are right there with the creator of the story and you are interacting with them at that moment. So, it really is an opportunity to change, to transform, to see the world in a different way.”

Her stories borrow wisdom from an array of Jewish sources, ranging from Hillel the sage, to contemporary storytellers like Buxbaum and Peninnah Schram, and they often carry a universal message: to “move toward peace and to experience that internally so that we learn as individuals how to be peaceful and respectful and kind in our interactions with each other,” Litman said. It’s a message that she hopes eventually “will affect the larger world.”

The true power of stories, she added, is that they “can encapsulate the essence of what we want to see in the world.”

Jan Lee’s articles have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, DailyRabbi.com and cjvoices.org (Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism). She is also a regular contributor to the business and ecology publication TriplePundit.com, where she writes on sustainable business practices throughout the world. Her blogs can be found at MulticulturalJew.blogspot.ca, and blogs.timesofisrael.com/author/jan-lee.

This article was published in the Jewish Independent http://jewishindependent.ca/Archives/nov13/archives13nov08-07.html

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